The truck's bell tinkles and the man sprawled on the steps of St. Matthew's Cathedral awakens to the call: "Freddie! Freddie! Go to the park!"
Freddie, wearing a headband with three pigeon feathers, untangles his long limbs and follows the truck to the "Triangle," a small patch of concrete and struggling shrubs at Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW, the center of a thriving downtown business strip and home for some of the city's street people.
It's nearly 5:30 p.m. and McKenna's Wagon has arrived. Four men stir, rise from their park benches and line up for "dinner": two sandwiches, one peanut butter and one cheese, a pastry or a pack of sunflower seeds, a cup of fruit punch.
The wagon, which rolled onto the streets Sept. 3, is the newest project of Martha's Table, a soup kitchen for children at 14th and W streets NW. It provides dinner for about 100 destitute and homeless persons every day, seven days a week.
On this recent trip, three men at the Triangle remain fast asleep, despite efforts to rouse them by their friends and by the wagon crew, who leave extra food and race off. "We'll have to remember to come back," to make sure none of the group goes unfed, driver Bob Harris says.
Harris steers the former ice cream truck through rush-hour traffic, on a circuitous route to Lafayette Park, Washington Circle, Farragut Square, a triangle at 11th and I streets NW, and Dupont Circle. An empty, unplugged freezer that once held popsicles takes up most of the space inside, and several volunteers squeeze around it, cradling the punch jug, sandwich trays and cups to keep them from falling.
On the truck is Dr. Veronica Maz, a former sociology professor at Georgetown University and the founder of Martha's Table. McKenna's Wagon was her idea.
When Maz goes along, she hops out at every stop. "It's more than giving the food," she says. "They need a friendly face and some sort of welcome."
Maz named the wagon for the late Rev. Horace B. McKenna, a Jesuit priest active in ministries to the poor and cofounder with Maz of SOME (So Others Might Eat), a Northwest Washington organization providing free food, counseling and health care. McKenna, who died last May at 83, is remembered throughout Washington for his spirited commitment to helping those in need. The wagon concept is "Father McKenna in a nutshell," Maz says.
"We're going where they are, they are not coming to us," says volunteer Connie Ridge, who knows many of the patrons by name and banters with them as she hands out sandwiches, adding a dose of good cheer here, a note of encouragement there.
Many who approach the wagon talk of unsuccessful job hunting. Most are young men, some dressed in worn, clean clothes, others wearing winter jackets despite summer temperatures, toting their belongings in plastic bags. Some say the wagon fare is their only meal that day. Almost everyone says "thank you."
At the I Street triangle, a young man accepts his meal and asks for food for an elderly couple seated on the other side of the park. According to Maz, some patrons are too old to walk to area soup kitchens or don't know how to get there, unsure how to use public transportation.
The crew hands over sandwiches until the supply is gone, filling requests for second helpings, even thirds or fourths. They run out before getting to Dupont Circle, and never make it back to the Connecticut and M triangle.
Much of the food is purchased for five cents a pound from the Capital Area Community Food Bank in Northeast Washington, and the pastries are donated by a Georgetown bakery, Au Croissant Chaud. Expenses for food, gasoline and supplies such as cups and sandwich wrap total just over $100 a week, some of which comes from donations by area residents, churches and community groups to Martha's Table, which runs a lunch line for adults in addition to the children's facility.
Twelve volunteers take turns picking up food and supplies, preparing sandwiches, and taking the wagon on its rounds. Six of them also serve on the committee charged with finding supplies, equipment and more volunteers.
Some, like Maz and Ridge, are veterans of social service work. Then there is 18-year-old Doug Eyde, who spent 2 1/2 hours on a recent Monday making 200 sandwiches and several more hours helping on the route. He had been fed from the wagon himself just the previous week. Eyde says he was "kicked out of the Army" for "inability to adapt to military life" and then couldn't find work.
Worried that he was too young to be on the streets, the wagon crew asked him to help, and after hesitating one day, he agreed. Now he sleeps at Martha's Table and feels better about himself: "At least I'm helping and doing something," he says.
In time, Maz said, she hopes to expand to six wagons and to increase the offerings, particularly to include hot soup and coffee this winter, and eventually to start a national network.
For now, the first and only wagon rolls on, each time adding a few new faces to its regular clientele.
At Lafayette Square, one young regular with dull eyes and a few days' growth of beard approaches.
"Tim, how you doin'?" Connie Ridge shouts. "Haven't seen you. Where've you been?"
The conversation is brief and Tim's answers are vague as he gets his dinner and moves away. But he gives Ridge a small, shy smile as he goes, and the eyes, for a moment, are alive.